Secure Bootstrap

Table of Contents

This guide presumes that you already have CFEngine properly installed and running on the policy hub, the machine that distributes the policy to all the clients. It also presumes that CFEngine is installed, but not yet configured, on a number of clients.

We present a step-by-step procedure to securely bootstrapping a number of servers (referred to as clients) to the policy hub, over a possibly unsafe network.


CFEngine's trust model is based on the secure exchange of keys. This exchange of keys between client and hub, can either happen manually or automatically. Usually this step is automated as a dead-simple "bootstrap" procedure:

cf-agent --bootstrap $HUB_IP

It is presumed that during this first key exchange, the network is trusted, and no attacker will hijack the connection. After "bootstrapping" is complete, the node can be deployed in the open internet, and all connections are considered secure.

However there are cases where initial CFEngine deployment is happening over an insecure network, for example the Internet. In such cases we already have a secure channel to the clients, usually ssh, and we use this channel to manually establish trust from the hub to the clients and vice-versa.

Manual Trust Establishment

This procedure concerns CFEngine version 3.6 or earlier. While this fully manual procedure should always work, from version 3.7 onwards there is a simpler semi-automatic procedure for establishing trust.

On the policy hub

We must change the policy we're distributing to fully locked-down settings. So after we have set-up our hub (using the standard procedure of cf-agent --bootstrap $HUB_IP) we take care of the following:

  • Cf-serverd must never accept a connection from a client presenting an untrusted key. So in body server control we must empty the trustkeysfrom attribute:

    trustkeysfrom => {};

  • Since we will be manually bootstrapping the clients, we need to distribute a proper policy. (**NOTE:** is a file auto-generated in the inputs directory when we run cf-agent --bootstrap).

    In order to do that, we copy hub's to masterfiles directory:

    cp /var/cfengine/inputs/ /var/cfengine/masterfiles/

    We'll edit that copy in masterfiles in the next step.

  • All copy_from files promises must never connect to an untrusted server, which means that the following line should not be found anywhere:

    trustkey => "true"

    All occurences of trustkey in masterfiles directory should be changed to "false", or be removed (since it defaults to false anyway). It is certain that that we copied in the previous step will contain such occurences that should be changed. (Those occurences are the reason that automatic bootstrapping requires a trusted network).

  • The previous changes in masterfiles need to be properly propagated to the inputs directory. The automated way to do that is to run the policy:

    cf-agent -f
  • Get the hub's key fingerprint, we'll need it later:

    HUB_KEY=`cf-key -p /var/cfengine/ppkeys/`

On each client we deploy

We should not follow the automatic method, i.e. the cf-agent --bootstrap command. We will perform a manual bootstrap.

  • Generate a private/public key pair by running cf-key.

  • Get the client's key fingerprint, we'll need it later:

    CLIENT_KEY=`cf-key -p /var/cfengine/ppkeys/`
  • Write the policy hub's IP address to policy_server.dat:

    echo $HUB_IP > /var/cfengine/policy_server.dat
  • Manually copy the modified from hub's masterfiles directory into client's inputs directory. You should do it in a secure manner, for example using scp with properly trusted fingerprint of the remote host.

  • NOTE: At this step, you can try running the failsafe policy. Because trust between the two hosts has not been established, you will get a failure, which is totally expected and means everything is correct and secure:

    $# cf-agent -f
    error: TRUST FAILED, server presented untrusted key: MD5=cc27570b8b831192d9f20b54d07dd80b
    error: No suitable server responded to hail
    error: TRUST FAILED, server presented untrusted key: MD5=cc27570b8b831192d9f20b54d07dd80b
    error: No suitable server responded to hail
    [ ... ]
  • Put the hub's key into the client's trusted keys:

    scp $HUB_IP:/var/cfengine/ppkeys/ /var/cfengine/ppkeys/root-${HUB_KEY}.pub

Final steps

  • Put the client's key into the hub's trusted keys. So on the hub, run:

    scp $CLIENT_IP:/var/cfengine/ppkeys/ /var/cfengine/ppkeys/root-${CLIENT_KEY}.pub
  • If you now run the failsafe policy on each and every client, it should succeed:

    cf-agent -f

Congratulations, you have performed a fully manual bootstrap procedure for your clients!